Eighth inning proves costly for Rays
Bullpen struggles, Aybar's error open door for Yankees
NEW YORK -- Heading into the late innings against a seasoned lineup like the Yankees' is unnerving enough, even if a team's bullpen is intact.
So for Rays manager Joe Maddon, whose bullpen has spent the early part of the season trying to find its rhythm, pitting his bullpen against the Yankees is all about matchups. The problem is, his bullpen doesn't match up well against the Yankees.
On Sunday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, the equation added up to a 4-3 Yankees win, after the Bombers erased a 3-1 Rays lead in the bottom of the eighth. In defeat, the Rays (29-29) moved back to .500 on the season, as they saw their four-game winning streak come to a close.
"The Yankees are tough for us to match up against," Maddon said. "They're tough for anyone, actually, predominantly left-handed hitters, switch-hitters, those kinds of things, so with us it's a more difficult matchup situation."
The Rays spent the first 7 1/2 innings of Sunday's game building, then protecting a 3-1 lead. B.J. Upton, who sported a newly fashioned Mohawk, responded as though it was the autumn of 2008 with an RBI double in the third. Rays starter Matt Garza surrendered just a solo home run in five innings of work, and the Rays took a 3-1 lead in the sixth on a two-run single by Gabe Gross.
Joe Nelson followed with two scoreless innings leading to the bottom of the eighth, when Grant Balfour took over for the Rays.
Balfour retired Derek Jeter on a flyout to start the inning, then the bottom began to fall out. Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira followed with singles to bring up Alex Rodriguez with runners on the corners.
"I wanted to try and get a ground ball, have [Rodriguez] swing at sliders down and get him out," Balfour said.
Instead of swinging away, Rodriguez walked on five pitches to orchestrate Balfour's exit from the game.
"The big at-bat there is Rodriguez," Maddon said. "The walk to Rodriguez is really the big at-bat of the inning. If we could at least retire him there; even if they scored a run, get an out. ... So regardless of what happened in that inning, I thought the walk to Rodriguez was a big play."
J.P. Howell, who has been one of the more reliable relievers out of the Rays' pen, entered the game and walked Robinson Cano to force in a run, making the score 3-2. Howell then faced Jorge Posada and got what he wanted with a room-service double-play ball to Willy Aybar at third.
"[Howell] was trying to get the ground ball and he kept the ball down, and eventually he did [get the grounder]," Maddon said. "It's a difficult moment to put any relief pitcher in, but I felt like J.P. could handle it. It did not work."
Unfortunately, Aybar booted Posada's hit, which allowed the Yankees to tie the game.
"I just think it was kind of weird. It took a long hop and then kind of a short one," Howell said. "It was kind of tough, man. It's a tough play. It's one of those where it's a great play if he comes up with it. And if he doesn't, it was a tough play. Either way, I look at it like it's no one's fault; it's just the way the breaks go sometimes."
With the game tied at 3, Hideki Matsui grounded into a force out to score the go-ahead run. Mariano Rivera entered the game in the ninth, and the Yankees closer retired the final three Rays in order to preserve the win, earning his 13th save of the season.
Currently, the Rays are working without a true closer, which makes situations like the one they faced on Sunday even tougher to face.
"With a normal or regular closer situation, you're working eight innings of relief pitching," Maddon said. "Now you're working nine. So you're working those three extra outs, and you've got to keep that in the back of your mind."
And the Yankees' lineup does present some problems.
"They've got the lefties and the switch-hitters in there, so it's primarily a left-handed-hitting lineup," Maddon said. "If you look at us physically, we have several guys who match up well with lefties. Nelson did a really nice job. And Balfour has done a nice job against lefties. And J.P., he's actually better against righties than lefties this year, so go figure.
"Nevertheless, I just think they are a tough matchup, unless you have lefties who can get out righties [in the bullpen]. ... It's hard to work through their lineup."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.